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How Figure Skating Saved My Music Career

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

Hey there! 👋

I know it's been a while since my last blog post, but with the Beijing Winter Olympics wrapping up, I thought I'd share an experience I had during the last Winter Olympics back in 2018. It's an experience I'll never forget because I truly don't know where I would be without it. I've actually wanted to write about this for so long but just never got around to it (I'm sure someone out there can relate!).

Let's set the scene, shall we?

A few months before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics began, I had a crisis. I didn't want to continue studying music anymore. I was one semester and a half away from completing my Bachelor's degree in performance but I couldn't see a way out of the ups and downs I kept experiencing.

I suffer from intense performance anxiety but it wasn't just about that. My playing in the practice room, during my lessons, and in rehearsal rooms was all over the place. Sometimes my sound would be silky smooth and I'd feel like I was on top of the world! Other times, my sound would be hollow and lacking resonance and I would feel ashamed and discouraged.

I was caught up in comparing myself to others and I was stuck in the binary of good flutist/bad flutist. On good sound/playing days, I was a good flutist. On bad ones, I was a bad flutist. You can only imagine how heartwrenching that back and forth is for your identity and self-worth. The whiplash became too much to handle.

My crisis culminated with me sobbing to my then-counsellor (mental skills coach), telling her I couldn't continue living like this. I told her I was starting to seriously consider abandoning this path, even though it was the only one I'd ever really considered with my whole heart. She told me to take my time; it was a big decision to make. I listened to her and continued to reflect on this issue for the next little while.

The whiplash became too much to handle.

Cut to a few months later, during the Winter Olympics of 2018. I had resolved to finish my Bachelor's degree but hadn't decided if I would continue pursuing a graduate degree or even a music career afterwards. I also made the decision to practice at home instead of at school, as much as I could. By that point, the university I attended was mainly a source of anxiety for me instead of joy and excitement. I knew that in order to feel confident preparing my final recital, I would have to practice in a more comfortable setting, which was my apartment.

Now, I've always loved watching the Olympics and especially figure skating. My family has a long history within the field of figure skating because my sister trained for many years as a skater, when she was younger, and I did one year of training when I was around 8 years old. We always loved watching the sport and I have fond memories of watching my sister skate during practice sessions and competitions.

The only time I ever really keep up with the sport, however, is during the Olympics. I keep telling myself to research when other televised competitions take place buuuut we've already established I have a hard time following through on my to-do list :))) #NeurodivergentThings

Anyways! I vaguely remembered the ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from a previous Olympics (I couldn't remember if it was Sochi or Vancouver) but I had heard they were contenders to win a medal and that it was their last Olympics together. Needless to say, I was super pumped to watch them!

As I started watching a few figure skating events leading up to their final skate, I realized a few things. One, these athletes are mindblowingly amazing. It's one of the only sports that formally combines artistry and athleticism and it's spectacular to watch. Two, it takes an unimaginable amount of bravery to step on the ice with knives attached to your foot and let go of or push through your fear in order to produce a beautiful performance. At this point, my brain cells starting tingling with self-reflection!

The word that kept coming to my mind and inspiring me was "momentum". You have to have momentum in order to skate through your program. You can't hesitate or stop skating or let your thoughts overtake you. If you doubt yourself for one second, you can literally potentially die. Or worse, fall and lose points. 😉

I started to compare music-making with skating. The best musicians are able to fly through the music they're performing. They blow air continuously through the flute without hesitation. They just go for it!!! And it doesn't matter if the piece they're playing is somber or exciting; they play from start to finish with confidence and ease.

You have to have momentum in order to skate through your program. You can't hesitate or stop skating or let your thoughts overtake you.

By the time I watched Tessa and Scott's iconic free skate to Moulin Rouge, I was already feeling so inspired by the way figure skaters take to the ice. Watching them gave me a newfound appreciation for what I do on the flute. I skate too, but instead of dancing on knives, I create beautiful sounds through a metal tube. Instead of jumping in the air, I use the flexibility of my airstream to produce large, connected intervals. Instead of a step sequence, I play around with articulations and musical styles.

Tessa and Scott's skate was just the nail in the coffin of my motivation to turn a new leaf in my flute playing journey. Their artistry was like nothing I'd ever seen before. And their joy! Their joy!!! I was crying and clapping and jumping up and down watching them, and I already began thanking them for lifting my spirits and renewing my love of the flute.

The day after their final skate, I told myself to take everything I just learned from watching professional figure skaters do their thing on the world stage and apply it to my flute practice. I kept working on managing my performance anxiety, creating consistency in my sound production, and using comparison as a tool to help me improve, not put myself down. My final recital went so well, by my standards if no one else's, and I 100% credit this experience to getting me there.

I'll admit, I was also inspired, but in a different way, from watching Gabrielle Daleman have a pretty awful skating experience during her free skate. I felt like I could hear her negative thoughts as she kept stumbling and falling. I knew then how powerful our inner monologue and our mental preparation is. It can make or break us.

Obviously I have no idea what she was thinking or why her skate ended up the way it did. But I found it interesting to compare that kind of skate to other situations when skaters fall but it doesn't seem to affect the rest of their performance. I figured something different must be going on in their minds. As Gabrielle's joy was clearly leaving her mind and body, other skaters' joy was unimpeded by their one blight. I began to reflect on this as it pertained to my performance anxiety and critical stance on "if I play well, I'm a good flutist / if I play badly, I'm a bad flutist".

Their artistry was like nothing I'd ever seen before. And their joy! Their joy!!!

So, this is my longwinded way of saying that I did in fact complete my Bachelor's degree and my music career has remained on track since then. Meaning, I went on to a graduate degree; I tried to go study in Scotland, gave it my best, but it didn't work out (zero regrets though!); and I've been working on projects and teaching since finishing school in 2019. I love what I do and I've been forever inspired and changed by all of the realizations I had watching those incredible figure skaters.

Some key takeaways:

  • Think of your airstream as a skate; you have to push it forward and keep blowing in order to make your way across the ice.

  • Think of a performance as a present you are offering the audience or judging panel. It's your moment to shine and everyone wants you to do well!

  • If you "fall" during a performance, think of it as just a singular moment in time that's not attached to the next moment. Keep playing and focus on the rest of your music.

  • Don't tie your "mistakes" or "bad days" up with your self-worth as a person and musician. You are more than what you do on the flute. You are a whole, complex human being and no single performance can define you.

  • Let yourself feel JOY as often as you can. While you're practicing, while you're performing, while you're rehearsing. You are allowed to feel proud of yourself and happy with your playing!

I hope I've convinced you to look up Tessa and Scott's iconic performance and/or to watch figure skating in general. I'm so curious to know how you can relate it back to music making as well! Grab inspiration where you can from fields other than music sometimes. You won't regret it :)

Until next time,

Caitlin 🎶


Interested in positive self-talk and mental skills? Take a look at my recently published resource entitled "Positive Affirmations"! You'll receive a list of 15 inspiring quotes and phrases to help you on your journey towards self-love and self-compassion. Download it for FREE here. And make sure to check out all sorts of other resources on my website right here! Happy learning :)


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